About the National Deaths in Custody Program

About the National Deaths in Custody Program

In 1987 the Australian Government established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) in response to concerns about the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying in custody. For the purposes of this website, the term Indigenous is used to refer to persons of an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background.

The royal commission found that Indigenous persons were not more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous persons but were significantly over-represented in custody. Recent figures show that the over-representation of Indigenous persons in custody remains a problem in Australia and that rates of over-representation continue to increase (ABS 2017).

The royal commission also noted the lack of reliable statistics available on deaths in custody in Australia. To fill this information gap, the RCIADIC recommended the establishment of a program to monitor deaths of Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons occurring in prison, police custody and youth detention centres (Recommendation 41). In response, the National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP) was established at the Australian Institute of Criminology in 1992. Since then, the NDICP has collected and recorded comprehensive data on all individuals:

  • who died in prison custody, police custody or youth detention;
  • who died attempting to escape from prison, police custody or youth detention, regardless of where the death occurred;
  • whose death was caused or contributed to by traumatic injuries sustained, or by lack of proper care, while in such custody or detention, regardless of where the death occurred; or
  • who died or were fatally injured in the process of police or prison officers attempting to detain that person.

As the NDICP was established solely to monitor deaths that occur in police, youth and prison custody, it does not consider deaths in immigration detention centres.

Compiling the National Deaths in Custody database

The information held in the NDICP database comes from two main sources:

  • NDICP data collection forms completed by state and territory police and corrective services; and
  • Coronial reports including toxicology reports, police reports, post-mortem accounts and court proceeding and findings transcripts.

The NDICP collects data on 88 variables. These data relate to the circumstances and characteristics of each death and demographic information about each deceased person. The NDICP uses the National Coronial Information System to confirm the primary data provided by state and territory police and corrective services.

Definitions

The definitions used to determine whether an individual’s death should be included as a death in custody are based on recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (see Box 1). The definition of a death in police custody was expanded following a resolution of the Australasian Police Ministers Council to include other close contact deaths that occurred during police operations (Category 1b) and deaths that occurred during custody-related police operations that did not involve close contact with the deceased (Category 2). Prior to this change, only deaths in institutional settings were recorded (Category 1a).

Deaths occurring in the following circumstances are excluded from the NDICP:

  • deaths during rescue-related police operations such as search and rescues and evacuations;
  • deaths during police operations to prevent a suicide attempt, where the purpose was not to detain the deceased due to a breach of the law; and
  • deaths of innocent bystanders in police operations, including pedestrians or vehicle passengers.

However, persons in the above circumstances may be retrospectively included as a death in custody if it is later discovered that the deceased had committed or was involved in an offence.

Box 1: Defining deaths in custody


Deaths in prison custody

Deaths in prison custody include deaths that occur in prison or youth justice facilities. This also includes the deaths that occur during transfer to or from these custody settings, or in medical facilities following transfer from adult and youth detention centres (RCIADIC 1991: 189–190).


Deaths in police custody

Deaths in police custody are divided into two categories:

Category 1

1a: Deaths in institutional settings (eg police stations or lockups, police vehicles or hospitals), during transfer to or from such institutions, or following transfer from an institution.

1b: Other deaths in police operations where officers were in close contact with the deceased. This includes most deaths linked to police raids and shootings by police. However, it would not include most deaths occurring in sieges where a perimeter was established around a premise but officers did not have such close contact with the person that they were able to significantly influence or control the person’s behaviour.

Category 2

Other deaths during custody-related police operations. This includes most sieges and cases where officers were attempting to detain a person—for example, during a pursuit. This would cover situations where officers did not have such close contact with the person that they were able to significantly influence or control the person’s behaviour.

Classification of cases

The NDICP uses the definition of a death in custody recommended by the royal commission as a guide when deciding which cases should be included in the NDICP database. While most cases are straightforward and clearly fall within the definition, every year there are some cases where it is unclear whether the death should be classified as a death in custody. For the purposes of the NDICP, a person is considered to be in custody when they are not free to leave the detention or arrest of police or corrections officials. As outlined in Box 1, this includes deaths that occur in hospitals if the injuries or illness suffered while in custody caused or contributed to that death. In cases where police were clearly in the process of detaining or attempting to detain a person immediately prior to death, such as in shootings, sieges, raids and pursuits, the person is considered to have been in custody at the time of death. In all of these cases, the question of inclusion in this report centres on whether the deceased was in custody at the time of death.

Any borderline cases that cannot be further clarified have been excluded until further information about the case is obtained, which often occurs via a coronial finding. Such cases may be excluded for several years, as cases may not be heard by the coroner for months or years, or a coroner’s findings may be appealed. Despite this, relying on coronial decisions ensures the integrity and reliability of the NDICP over the longer term, as coronial findings are legally binding determinations based on all available evidence. Finally, each year NDICP data are cross-checked with the relevant custodial authorities to ensure accuracy. Where information is missing from reports to the NDICP, these are checked against coronial findings and necessary revisions made to the dataset.

Period of data collection

Data for deaths in prison custody are available from 1979–80, while data for deaths in police custody data are available from 1989–90.
Trend data may fluctuate markedly due to the small numbers of deaths in custody. Therefore, caution should be exercised with interpretation.

Indigenous status

When reporting statistics on Indigenous people it is important to note, as with the criminal justice system more generally, Indigenous status is not always collected and, when it is, the recording is not always consistent. Moreover, the way in which Indigenous status is determined varies between jurisdictions. The recording of Indigenous status may be based on a subjective assessment of physical appearance or self-report. As a result, the number of Indigenous people engaged with the criminal justice system may be underestimated. This potential undercounting should be kept in mind when interpreting the data.

Cause of death versus Manner of death

Cause of death refers to any disease, morbid condition or injury that either resulted in or contributed to death (ABS 2016b). Manner of death relates to the accountability for the death as recorded by the coroner or prison authorities. There are six classifications relating to manner of death: self-inflicted, natural causes, justifiable homicide, unlawful homicide, accidental, and other.

Although similar, differences do exist between manner and cause of death. For example, when a person dies of a heart attack in prison, both the cause and manner of death will be labelled as natural causes. Conversely, where the cause of death is categorised as hanging, the manner of death is recorded as either self-inflicted or accidental.

Calculating death rates

Prison population rates are calculated using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics series Prisoners in Australia and Corrective Services in Australia and data from the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision. Trends in rates are presented from 1981–82, as prison census data did not exist prior to that financial year. For each analysis, population data sources are chosen based on the availability of detailed data. For this reason rates may be slightly different across each analysis.

Trends in police custody rates are not presented due to the absence of reliable data on the number of people placed in police custody and the frequency of interactions with police each year.

AIC research

Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Statistical Reports

Research Reports

Statistical Bulletins